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Friday Feature: Colossal Academy

Colleen Hroncich

Just like one size doesn’t fit all students, one size doesn’t fit all teachers, either. Shiren Rattigan experienced this first‐​hand. A fourth generation educator, Shiren says she was destined to be a teacher. It just took her some time to find the right environment.

“As an educator for over 10 years, I taught at public schools, private elite international schools, and a Montessori school, but none of them quite reflected my vision of education,” she recalls. “I saw myself as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus—whisking the students away on some great unforgettable adventure. I wanted to ignite the love of learning in children with deep connections, hands‐​on activities, and soulful experiences.”

Then came COVID-19. Shiren’s three daughters were doing remote school while she was trying to teach her Montessori classes online. Some families asked her if she would tutor their children for the upcoming school year and she agreed. She created kits and dropped them off for the students every Sunday so they could have the Montessori environment right in their homes instead of trying to create it on a screen. She would then direct them to get the appropriate box for each lesson.

“This was working pretty well,” she says. “We decided to meet once a week, then twice a week, and then three times a week. I wanted to offer this opportunity to more children and be accessible to a diverse socioeconomic background. I decided the best way to do that was to become a licensed private school and participate in Florida’s school choice scholarship program.”

Colossal Academy focuses on what Shiren calls 21st century foundational skills—literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, cultural and civic literacy, and financial literacy. The more traditional academic classes are in the morning, and the students all have their own individual learning plans. They have an hour of unstructured time for lunch where they’re able to just be together as a group. After lunch, they have specials, which can include farming, cooking, and textiles. While Colossal Academy is an official private school, Shiren welcomes homeschoolers as well with her three‐​day a week hybrid option.

The initial focus of Colossal Academy was middle school, but Shiren is adding a high school starting with ninth grade this year. “We are working towards relevancy‐​based education,” she notes. “As we bridge into high school, all students will graduate as the CEO of their company. By junior year they will have decided formally what their business will be, created business plans, launched a website, and gone to pitch and raise money for their ventures or non‐​profits.”

Shiren has also gotten external validation—Colossal received a Next Step Grant from VELA Education Fund and was a Yass Prize quarterfinalist. No wonder she’s looking to help others start their own microschools. The Colossal Architect Accelerator assists with securing a space, designing a project‐​based curriculum, marketing, enrollment, and more. This will help teachers as well as other students.

“One exciting aspect that I’ve grown to understand is that I’m also creating a fertile ground for educators. A place where they can be creative, have deep connections, and thrive,” Shiren explains. “I want to fortify teachers to be the professionals that they aim to be—that they thought they were signing up for when they went into education. So it’s kind of two‐​fold: serving learners, but also creating a better environment for teachers.

The excitement and passion Shiren has for Colossal Academy is impossible to miss. She sees it as the learning sanctuary she wishes she’d had, the vision she had in becoming a teacher, and the educational environment she wants for her own children.

“In many ways, Colossal Academy is completing a circle,” Shiren says. “My great‐​grandmother taught in a one‐​room schoolhouse on a farm. My grandma and mom taught in public schools like we see today. And now I’ve created a modern version of the one‐​room schoolhouse that lets me individualize education for my students. I guess it’s true that everything old is new again.”

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